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Henry Denker, prolific playwright, novelist, screenwriter, dies at 99

Henry Denker, a lawyer turned novelist, playwright, and screenwriter, whose work ranged from Christian-themed biblical epics to medical novels, died May 15 at 99.

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Denker was a prolific writer who approached his craft in a businesslike fashion: ““Writing is a business and should be practiced as such,” he was quoted as saying by The New York Times. On days when you think you can’t possibly write a line you do it anyhow.”

Denker wrote seven plays produced on Broadway, including “Time Limit!” (also made into a film), about an American soldier accused of treason in a North Korean prison camp, and “Horowitz and Mrs. Washington,” about an elderly Jewish man whose recovery from a knife attack by blacks is abetted by an African American nurse (the production, based on Denker’s novel of the same name, ran for six performances on Broadway in 1980.

Early in his career, Denker wrote award-winning scripts for the long-running 1950s radio program, “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” which used the Christian Gospels to dramatize the life of Jesus Christ. He received “source” credit for the storyline in the infamous (because it was a critical and financial flop) 1965 epic film of the same name directed by George Stevens. (Here’s a link to view the trailer – if you insist on watching even 4 minutes of it.)

The Times noted Denker’s 1961 play, “A Far Country,” about “Freud’s breakthrough case, his treatment of a psychosomatically paralyzed young woman,” which received good reviews but criticism from Freud’s nephew, Edward L. Bernays. Denker and Bernays later dueled each other in articles about the psychoanalyst in the trade publication Variety.

Denker was born in Manhattan but moved to Brooklyn and The Bronx after the collapse of his father’s fur business. He received a law degree from New York University. The Times reported Denker had originally planned to become a rabbi but opted out becuase of the need to earn money for his family and because “his faith was shaky.”

Denker also wrote more than 30 novels and numerous scripts for TV movies, including “Judgment: The Court Martial of Lt. William Calley,” in 1975.

Denker was married for 61 years to Edith Rose Denker, a former nurse. He was her patient at Mount Sinai Hospital. “I did the clichéd thing and fell in love with my nurse,” he said.

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org. Follow the Eulogizer on Twitter @TheEulogizer

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